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Lift Your Leadership With These Top CEO Secrets
By Steve Tappin
I'd like to share and bring to life some of the most important secrets of the top CEOs in the world, so that you can incorporate them into your own leadership and that of your company:
1. Top Leaders Want To Do Something Great: They're Not Just Driven By The Numbers
Professional managers worry first about hitting the numbers. In contrast, the most successful leaders tend to be driven by a higher cause, and a drive to do something great in the world. The late Steve Jobs was one CEO who had his relative priorities the right way round:
Similarly, Walt Disney was fueled by the power of his dreams, rather than a singular focus on making money: "I dream, I test my dreams against my beliefs, I dare to take risks, and I execute my vision to make those dreams come true... It's kind of fun to do the impossible."
Today, I can see a big difference between the majority of Western established companies, who are over-focused on near-term shareholder value, and the Chinese CEOs, who are more motivated by building their dreams. Shareholder value is of course important, but it's difficult for leaders to bring it to life and use it to inspire others in a meaningful way. I prefer the approach of building a great company or department, while at the same time keeping a second eye on value creation and the numbers.
2. Top Leaders Get That The Need For Speed Is More Critical Than Ever Before
CEOs are increasingly aware of the following danger: as their companies get bigger, things get more complicated, and as their companies grow older, things get slower. The new priority for all leaders is, in their area of responsibility, how to make things easier and go faster.
Walter Robb, co-CEO of Wholefoods, puts it best: "It's a constant battle, to make sure that you're checking yourself at the door, watching for where things can get bureaucratized or calcified, because it's the kiss of death. This is about speed today to compete."
Even at the world's most prestigious companies, CEOs acknowledge that their processes are not currently fast enough, and that they must learn from and adapt to conditions in emerging markets. Jeff Immelt, who heads up American industrial juggernaut GE, told me: "Failing slowly is deadly. Failing quickly is actually not that bad. I can't count how many failures I've had in 31 years, so what I'm trying to do is get in the company more of a headset of speed. And our processes are really built on, ‘we've got to be perfect from Day 1, blah blah blah,' that all going to change, really, and the emerging markets are going to force that, I think."
The key for leaders is to get ahead of the game and ahead of time. At its best, Apple had several rounds of product launches stored up and ready ahead of time. If you can be on the front foot with your team, then there is less stress. You will also be in a better position to adapt to the external changes.
3. Top Leaders Avoid Falling Into The "Crazy 8"
Having worked with thousands of CEOs, I have observed that over 80% of them fall into a common trap that I call the "Crazy 8". They try to delegate, but quickly get frustrated and take back responsibility. They become overwhelmed as they try to do too much themselves, get stuck in the day-to-day issues, and end up becoming the bottleneck in their company. Then they go round this Crazy 8 again and again...
Why? Rather than getting rid of difficult people or addressing strained working relationships with members of their management team, CEOs end up carrying people and struggling to let go. When running a big group of people, devolving power is essential. Yet resisting the temptation to micro-manage is one of the hardest leadership skills to learn. "Trust the team and let go," urges Mike Turner, chairman of Babcock International and former CEO of BAE Systems. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys, adds: "It's very important to decentralize. Articulate your vision, lay out the norms for reporting and the delegating of authority, and formulate a clear escalation mechanism. You need a protocol understood and practiced by various cultures."
Top CEOs are able to spend no more than 30% in the day-to-day, as they have managed to build a results system which does not rely on them to be a limiting hub. To be able to achieve the same as a leader in your own career, you need to be able to gather exceptional people around you, as well as be ruthless towards those whose performance is consistently not up to scratch, or whose behaviors limit the team.
And the antidote to micro-management? Leaders who have the skill to create a shared mindset and shared ambition, who can clarify what great looks like, pass on clear responsibility and then can truly let go and trust.
4. Top Leaders Lead From Within Themselves, Not By Goals Or Management Processes
The best CEOs are driving towards a big ambition in their heads, but ultimately by their passion to turn dreams into reality. They can bring the future to life through clear ambition (head), a passionate dream (heart) and a cause (gut).
For Mukesh Ambani, Chairman & MD of Reliance Industries, and one of Asia's richest men,"leadership is about soul, heart, and mind. ‘Soul' is what you believe in - your values. Everyone's values are different; it's not necessary to converge on them. ‘Heart' is your passion - it gives you the courage to build something and compassion and the other qualities that define who you are. The last and least is 'mind' - your competences."
By Mukesh's own admission, he doesn't "force anybody to work six-day weeks and 18-hour days". He just inspires such passion for the work that his teams do it anyway.
Top leaders have to learn to face reality. They must recognize that they are not superhuman, and have weaknesses and limiting patterns just like everybody else. Their success is rooted in their confidence to cover these weaknesses through others in the team, whose personalities complement rather than necessarily match their own. And when things get tough, top leaders get through by drawing on their core beliefs and what they stand for.
5. Top Leaders Build Fellowship, Founded On Connection And Strong Belief In Their Top Team
Like the model adopted in ‘The Lord of the Rings', top leaders have found a way to lead in what is known as a fellowship. Rather than there being just one person at the heart of the quest, the members instead form a tightly-bonded fellowship of remarkable leaders, who together can change the world. CEOs do this by establishing a trusted inner core, encouraging frank debate, and fully devolving decision-making. With deep trust and a shared dream established, these teams can go at hyper-speed.
True corporate fellowships are still very rare - there was one at both Nokia & Infosys in the 90s, and people still talk about the magical experience it was. Today both companies struggle to recapture the magic.
Looking at today's companies, a successful few have pioneered a co-CEO or shared responsibility model. In tech companies in particular, there is often a talented founder or software engineer, who rightly wants to remain at the center of things. The successful ones work with a close talented partner who complements the founder and can excel at the business side of things. Notable examples Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, or Eric Schmidt at Google, who successfully functions as the professional leader in the fellowship with foundersLarry Page and Sergey Brin.
At Whole Foods, there are two co-CEOs and a tightly integrated COO. The bond of their relationship is so tight that when they don't agree, they are able to talk it out. Interviewed about his book ‘Conscious Capitalism', co-CEO John Mackey commented: "I found that when you make decisions by consensus, and you let all the disagreements get expressed, you make better decisions. If you don't do that, there is a natural human tendency on the part of whoever didn't get their way to want to be proved right. It's like "See, I told you that wasn't going to work." The virtue of this approach is that, "although it takes longer to make the decision, implementation goes a lot faster, because there isn't resistance or sabotage that works its way through the organization."
Above all, fellowships are built on everyone digging in together. As Mukesh Ambanimemorably told me: "To build fellowship takes three years of going through hell. Everyone wants to go to heaven but you have to die to go to heaven. You have to go through a painful process - that builds ability to do this stuff."
6. Top Leaders Take Responsibility For Building A "Winning Family"
CEOs have a very direct influence on the personality of a business, and consciously or unconsciously, people follow them. They must take full responsibility for company culture, which should be authentic and energizing to the high-quality employees already in the firm and compelling to talents outside it.
The key is building a culture where people belong and want to give their best. As Zhang Ruimin of Chinese conglomerate Haier said, "a company without a culture is like a person without a soul". He believes that thinks you have to "create a family environment through genuine care and consideration, a sense of belonging, like a home."
Company culture was thrust back into the spotlight in January 2013, when Facebook COOSheryl Sandberg seized upon a presentation deck on Netflix's culture, calling it "the most important document ever to come out of the Valley". Reed Hastings' Netflix had long been famed for giving its companies unlimited vacation time - its 126-slide ‘Freedom & Responsibility' document set out some of the expectations that came along with it, including a "pro sports team" mentality where "you accomplish amazing amounts of important work" and "adequate performance gets a generous severance package".
My sense is aspiring leaders should create something inclusive that can be summed up in rather less than 126 pages. Nevertheless, Netflix was right to state that a great workplace is not just "espresso, lush benefits, sushi lunches, grand parties or nice parties" - it is instead about creating a place where the CEO is able to lift people to go beyond themselves.
Infosys's Narayana Murthy put it well when he said:
7. Top Leaders Take Responsibility For Their Own Life And Happiness Outside Work
For many CEOs, the pressure means that they can often disconnect from family and friends. In the limited time that they do try to devote to life outside work, they are often not fully present, and are more focused on using the time to recharge for next week in the office.
Crucially, leaders must take responsibility for own work/life balance and their own happiness, so that in the final analysis, they have no regrets. The cautionary tale here is that of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and by any standards one of America's successful entrepreneurs. However, on his death bed , he admitted that he was never there as a father, husband and friend. He had the wealthiest pockets, but the poorest soul. Walton's final words? "I blew it."
Over To You
Currently many large companies deliver passable financial returns, but fail to reach their true potential. A lack of soft leadership, understanding and skill can lead CEOs to squander rather than inspire their human capital.
I hope that these seven CEO secrets bring to life a better way to lead - how you use them to create powerful change in your own career in now in your hands. If you work in one of those companies that isn't well led, don't despair: you can still become the shining example to others of a better way forward. And even if your company doesn't value your efforts, applying the secrets today will prepare you for leading something great in the future.
Which of the CEO secrets best resonate with you? I would love to hear your experiences of successfully applying them to your leadership. Also please do let me know if there are any secrets that you would like to know more about. In a previous article, ‘How to become a Fortune 500 CEO' lots of people were interested in the ‘30:30:30:10 Rule', so we did a separate article on this which then attracted over 200,000 views. So please do share your ideas in the comments section below.
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